Belarus readies quick inauguration for Lukashenko

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, re-elected last month in what the opposition and international monitors said was a rigged vote, may be inaugurated as early as Friday, an election official said.

"January 21 is being considered as a working date. It is a tentative date. The date will be set finally by the presidential administration," Nikolai Lazovik, secretary of the central electoral commission, told Reuters.

An independent political analyst said the timing suggested Lukashenko was in a hurry to legitimise his victory in the Dec. 19 presidential election, which led to huge protests and hundreds of arrests.

"I think Lukashenko is trying to legitimise his new presidential term as quickly as possible. This relatively early date for the inauguration reflects his uncertainty in the support of the population and of the political elite," Valery Karbalevich said.

Many observers had expected an inauguration in mid-February.

Lukashenko has ruled the ex-Soviet republic since 1994 in an autocratic style that led the U.S. administration of former president George W. Bush to describe him as Europe's last dictator.

His opponents denounced his landslide election win last month as fraudulent and an OSCE monitoring team said at the time that the count carried out at many election centres had been "bad or very bad".

Four challengers for the presidency and scores of political activists who were rounded up remain in custody.

Since the unrest, the state-controlled Belarus media have accused the intelligence services of Germany and Poland of trying to organise a coup to oust Lukashenko and say western European states financed the political opposition against him.

Germany and Poland dismissed the accusations as absurd.

Western governments have urged Lukashenko to free opposition activists, and the United States and the European Union have warned they could reinstate sanctions, including possibly a visa ban on the president and his top aides.

The EU imposed sanctions on Belarus after a disputed ballot in 2006 but suspended their application in 2008 to encourage democratic reforms in a country of 10 million which is a transit route for Russian gas to the EU. (Writing by Richard Balmforth, editing by Mark Trevelyan)


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